Siam arrived early in 1879. A diplomat in Thailand learned the First Lady was fond of cats, he sent her and President Rutherford B. Hayes, the cat as a gift. She arrived at the White House, following a two-month journey from Thailand
Much loved by everyone, Siam became ill after only nine months, and despite the best veterinary attention, she could not be saved.
She was the first of the White House ‘Royal’ Siamese cats, followed by Misty Malarkey Yin Yang, owned by President Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy, and Shan Shein, who belonged to President Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan.
The original letter about Siam, sent from Bangkok by David Sickels, a United States diplomat, to First Lady Lucy Hayes, published below, can be found on the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center website. Here Paws republishes a copy of the letter.
David B. Sickels’ letter to Lucy Webb Hayes
November 1, 1878
Twelve-year-old Fanny Hayes watched excitedly as the White House staff opened the Wells Fargo crate for her mother. It had been more than two months since David B. Sickels, a United States diplomat at the consulate in Bangkok, had written to First Lady Lucy Hayes.
Sickels explained that when he discovered that Mrs. Hayes was fond of cats, he decided to send her one as a gift.
He wrote, ‘I have taken the liberty of forwarding you one of the finest specimens of Siamese cats that I have been able to procure in this country. I am informed that it is the first attempt ever made to send a Siamese cat to America.’
According to legend, Siamese cats were regal pets owned by Siam (now Thailand) royalty. They lived within the palace walls and served as guardians of Buddhist temples. As early as the 16th century, images of Siamese cats, distinguished by their unique coloration, appeared in Thai manuscripts.
Presidential Cat Siam Arrives at the White House
The first Presidential Siamese Cat, Affectionately called Siam, a ‘mahogany-colored feline adjusted rapidly to life at the White House. President Hayes remarked that the family’s menagerie – two dogs, a goat, a mockingbird, and the Siamese cat – “give a Robinson Crusoe touch to our mode of life.”
The good-natured Siam soon became a favorite of little Fanny and the staff. Allowed to roam the White House as she pleased, Siam enjoyed making grand entrances whenever the First Lady entertained guests.
In the autumn of 1879, while the Hayes family was at Spiegel Grove, Siam became seriously ill. The staff tried fish, chicken, duck, cream, and even oysters, hoping that Siam would respond.
When her condition worsened, the staff sent for the president’s personal physician. Dr. J. H. Baxter prescribed beef tea and milk every three hours, but Siam did not improve.
A pet lover himself, Dr. Baxter took Siam to his home. There, Fanny’s playmate, Nellie McCrary, daughter of Hayes’ Secretary of War, visited the beloved pet. The next day Nellie wrote to Fanny, bluntly reporting Dr. Baxter’s grim prognosis that ‘he thinks she will die and I do to[o].’
Siam had a short, but eventful life
Siam survived another five days. Everyone was saddened when news of Siam’s death reached the White House.
Her gentle and appreciative ways had endeared her to the entire staff. It was left to the president’s steward Billy Crump, to write the First Lady about Siam’s passing. Crump then delivered the lifeless body to the Secretary of Agriculture, giving personal instructions to preserve her. Despite searches of the Department of Agriculture’s museum and the Smithsonian Institution, Siam’s body has never been located.
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